Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 9: An Orcadian spell

Discreetly, like a barely visible waiter, James cleared away the plates before returning with a large platter of cheese. Placing the platter in the centre of the table, he recited off the names of the cheeses. Angus tried to follow, and to remember which was which, but found himself remembering only an Orcadian cheese and a Mull cheddar. One might forget so many exotic cheeses, he thought, but the memory of cheddar always remained.

44 Scotland Street

“Should one be embarrassed by choosing cheddar every time?” he asked.

Matthew laughed. “There’s no need to apologise for simple things.”

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“But is cheddar simple?” Domenica enquired. “Just because there’s a lot of it, does that make it simple?”

Elspeth thought it did not. She, like Angus, preferred cheddar to the other cheeses. She did not like runny cheeses, nor those that smelled too strongly; she did not like cheese that had blue veins running through it. She wondered what exactly was in those blue veins. Bacteria? Of course, there was nothing wrong with bacteria – we were full of bacteria, ourselves – populated by millions, no by billions, of tiny organisms, leading remote, bacterial lives inside us and covering our skin.

She gave an involuntary shudder, and changed the subject. “This Orkney cheese,” she said. “Is it nicer than the Mull cheddar?”

“I love Orcadian cheeses,” said Angus, realising, as he spoke, that he could name none. But he could broaden his declaration of love. “In fact, I love everything to do with Orkney. The Italian Chapel. Scapa Flow. George Mackay Brown. Peter Maxwell Davies …Orkney Wedding with Sunrise …”

Matthew nodded. “I heard that at the Festival last year,” he said. “The Scottish National Orchestra played it. That beautiful, swelling music, rising to a climax and then the piper comes in. It takes the breath away.”

“The pipes always do that,” agreed Elspeth. “I don’t mean just do that to the piper – it’s the same thing with the listener. There’s nothing more stirring.” She paused. “Mist Covered Mountains does it for me. There’s an extraordinary ...” She struggled for the right word.

“Gravity,” suggested Matthew. “I know what you mean. There’s a grave beauty to that tune. All the sorrow of Scotland is somehow distilled in that music.”

Angus nodded. There was a deep well of sorrow in Scotland … or was it wistfulness? Perhaps wistful longing was what Matthew was talking about: longing for something that had been there in the past, but was no longer.

But Domenica now said: “This Orcadian cheese – why was it so rare?”

Elspeth smiled. “Because the woman who made it had only one cow.”

Angus laughed. “A good enough reason.”

“I love the idea of that,” said Matthew. “Can’t you see it? An idyllic scene. A croft house surrounded by green fields. And a woman going out to milk her only cow.”

“And not far away,” Elspeth said, “cliffs at the end of her field, with the sea moving below, and the sun on the sea, and Norway only a few hundred miles away.” She paused. “And the woman with her single cow and her little shed in which she makes the cheese – tiny blocks of it – that are sent off to Edinburgh, where people can eat it and think about Orkney and how beautiful it is and how …”

They were silent. Then Matthew pointed at another cheese and said, “That one’s a goat’s milk cheese.”

The Orcadian spell was broken, and as Angus cut off a slice of Mull cheddar, reassuringly yellow, he said, “I’m reading a book about friendship.”

Matthew looked at him enquiringly. “About a particular friendship?”

“No. Friendship in general. It’s by a Professor Dunbar. He invented something called the Dunbar Number.”

They waited.

“It’s 150, apparently,” Angus said.

Elspeth looked puzzled. “150?”

Angus explained. “That’s the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. You can have about 150 people in your life. After that, it becomes too impossible to relate to them properly.”

“You mean close friends?” asked Elspeth.

Angus shook his head. “No. These are just people with whom you can sit down and have a chat. These are the people on your Christmas card list.”

“And how many closer friends can you have?” asked Elspeth.

“I forget exactly what he says,” Angus replied. “But I think it’s not much more than ten. We just can’t cope with more than that.”

For a moment, nobody said anything, as each of them discreetly measured themselves again this standard. Angus thought: does Cyril count as one of my ten? A dog could be a very close friend, but maybe that was a separate category. Perhaps Professor Dunbar had a figure for the number of dogs one could have in one’s life. Ten would be a bit much. Even two dogs could be emotionally demanding, he thought. And then he started to compile his list: Matthew would be on it, of course, and Elspeth too … unless a married couple counted for one in this context. He would count them as one, he decided. And then there was Domenica. Did one’s spouse count? That could be tricky. If you didn’t count your spouse or partner, then that implied a lack of friendliness in the relationship. No, a spouse definitely counted.

Elspeth was thinking: Domenica and Angus were friends, but would they be part of her allowance of ten? Did she know them all that well? Probably not. There was Molly, of course, with whom she had been at school, where they had been not only friends but best friends. Good old Molly, with those awful shoes of hers and that irritating way of saying You know what I mean? They had drifted apart, particularly after Molly had married Steve, who made model aeroplanes and talked about Hearts football club all the time – but all the time, or at least when he was not talking about model aeroplanes. Poor Molly. She was embarrassed by Steve, Elspeth thought, because her voice always dropped when she mentioned his name. That was a sign; that was definitely a sign.

Then she thought: Big Lou. Elspeth liked Big Lou, but she very rarely saw her. She would like her to be among her ten, but she was not sure whether, realistically, she was. Perhaps one would be allowed two lists: a list of those with whom one was currently a good friend, and then a list of those whom one would like to have as a close friend. There might even be a waiting list, like the waiting list for membership for Glyndebourne or for membership of Muirfield Golf Club, both requiring a wait of some years. Elspeth would have loved to be a member of Glyndebourne, but was indifferent to Muirfield Golf Club*.

But chacun à son goût, she thought – in this, as in all matters.

*Aka The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, located just outside Gullane (pronounced Gillin.)

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.